On Saturday, a fortunate hunter, a skilled guide and some top-notch hounds combined forces to take down “Big John,” a black bear that had twice been the subject of BDN stories, and that had also survived a previous gunshot wound.
The 14½-year-old bear had been captured twice by Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife biologists. On Saturday, guide Paul Laney of Grand Lake Stream and his hounds tracked the bear, which was shot and tagged by John DeSantis III of Wallkill, New York.
At the time of his death, the bear weighed 538 pounds. “Big John” was named after this BDN outdoors editor, who was working on a story about bear research when the bear was first captured. The state record for a bear taken by a hunter in Maine is 699 pounds.
The fact that the same bear made it into newspapers twice — first in 2010, then again in 2014 — gave the animal notoriety that rarely happens.
“My sense of it was this was the most famous bear that I have [handled doing research],” said DIF&W wildlife biologist Randy Cross, who leads the state’s bear crew and had captured “Big John” twice, four years apart. “He was in the paper twice, and when people looked at that picture, it had an impact.”
The photo taken in 2014 showed a massive bear in its prime.
“I think the picture from 2014 really, really displayed the magnificence of the animal more than most pictures do,” Cross said. “He was young and strong. He wasn’t fat. He was just athletic. A big, strong guy.”
When it was first captured in 2010, “Big John” weighed in at 364 pounds and was 7 years old. Four years later, he was captured at the same trap site — a foot restraint device was used — and weighed in at 432.
On a pair of other occasions, the bear walked in front of cameras. Once, the camera belonged to Laney, and the comically chubby bear’s backside dominates the frame.
When Cross saw the photos of the bear DeSantis shot, and heard the weight, he doubted it could be the same bear he’d handled twice.
“That’s [one] thing that threw me. I think what kept him short of the state record [this year] is that bears aren’t laying the fat on yet,” Cross said. “The fat lays on fast, and it really pumps the weight on quickly. When they’re gaining three to four pounds a day, they’re gaining it in fat weight. It’s easy for them to gain a pound of fat. It’s easy for us, too, unfortunately, at times.”
While female bears that Cross captures are fitted with radio or satellite collars so they can be tracked, the males are simply fitted with ear tags and given a numbered tattoo on their inner lips so that they can be identified if they’re encountered again.
“Big John” had lost his ear tags, but Cross checked the tattoo number — 224 — his database and told Laney the bear was, in fact, the one he’d been reading about for seven years.
Between its first appearance in the paper in 2010 and its second in 2014, it was also wounded, shot in the backside by a hunter.
Cross had long said that it would likely take a skilled houndsman to take the bear. He had nothing but praise for Laney, who used used his top two dogs, Yodel and Mojo, along with DeSantis’s dog Molly, on the hunt.
“I’m happy for Paul. I’m happy for the hunter. There’s a lot of really good hound hunters in the state of Maine, and Paul is one of the best,” Cross said. “There are a lot of people who conduct themselves with dignity and grace, and Paul is one of those.”
Laney said he was on his way to check a bait site where a big bear had been photographed on a trail camera the night before when the dogs, which were in boxes in the back of the truck, let him know they’d sniffed a bear.
“We started going up on the mountain and the dogs ‘struck,’” he said, describing their reaction to getting a good scent of a bear. “The whole truck kind of erupted. They all struck.”
Laney found a huge bear track in the road, and knew they might have a memorable hunt on their hands.
“Basically, [the bear] just put his head down and walked,” Laney said. “It’s like the dogs are a pack of flies around him. He doesn’t even stop. That bear just walked. He was going wherever he wanted to go and nothing was going to stop him.”
Laney and DeSantis followed the baying dogs, then worked their way over to a road.
That’s when the bear made his final mistake.
“I’ve been on a lot of those big bears over the years, and usually they don’t want to cross a main road,” Laney said. “They don’t cross any road. But sure enough, he came right out to the road, to us.”
And DeSantis was waiting, and made his shot count.
DeSantis said he dropped the bear off at a taxidermist upon his return to New York, and is having a full mount done.
“The big part of it for me was my hounds were involved in this hunt,” said DeSantis, who has been hunting with Laney for the last eight years. “That’s the sport of it for me … I love running my dogs, and I love hearing them go after a bear.”
And he said this year’s hunt couldn’t have turned out any better.
“I was ecstatic. I was very honored to take a bear like that,” DeSantis said. “That’s a once-in-a-lifetime trophy to take.”